Whether it’s global warming or just sheer bad luck, news of travellers caught in a natural disaster or freak accidents while on holiday are not entirely uncommon.
Recent reports of hazards in popular tourist destinations – Mount Agung volcano eruption in Bali and Osaka’s magnitude 6.1 earthquake – show that mishaps can strike at any time and anywhere.
No one can predict an accident, but what can travellers do in times of trouble?
Try to remain calm
First thing’s first – stay calm. Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang says it’s important to not panic or freeze.
“Find ways to ensure safety or minimise injury as help may only come much later. Call for an ambulance if your travelling companion is gravely ill or injured. Call for Fire and Rescue if someone is trapped in a damaged vehicle or collapsed building.
“Leave the scene in case of a fire, flood or civil commotion,” he offers.
Interestingly, one should also take to social media.
“Post your situation on social media like Facebook or WhatsApp. In short, alert friends or your emergency contact of the situation. In today’s environment, the most effective way is to keep broadcasting your situation periodically,” Tan says.
The next thing you should do is to reach out to the local police, embassy or tourism ministry.
“Those on group tours would have already been taken care of by the tour leader, local tour guide and company staff. Those who booked their own travel arrangements could try to seek help from local service providers,” he says, adding that travel agents usually provide important contacts and safety tips prior to any trip.
Assistance varies according to the help needed. Severely sick or injured travellers are given adequate care immediately before being brought home at the earliest opportunity, including repatriation of bodies.
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Map your exit at your accommodation
On the accommodation front, travellers should take note of the property’s room map upon check-in. Malaysia Budget Hotel Association (MyBHA) president P.K. Leong advises guests to build a mental image of the escape routes and fire exits.
“For any emergency, the golden rule is to move hotel guests away from the source of danger,” he says, adding that authorities will be immediately contacted for rescue and medical help.
According to Leong, hotels will make sure that the fire alarm system is operational at all times. Apart from that, staff will ensure that staircases are not blocked and all exits are open.
In cases of fire, immediate evacuation is necessary. For riots, hotels usually keep guests in and provide food to last out the emergency. During floods, guests will be moved to higher floors and provided food until the water subsides or until evacuation.
“Generally, hotels are bound by Fire and Rescue Department regulations to provide fire fighting equipment. But there are no regulations yet on earthquakes, floods or riots,” Leong says.
Leong adds that hoteliers will try to minimise loss of material by facilitating insurance claim processes.
Popular vacation home rental platform Airbnb also has measures in place for dealing with global disasters. Commenting on the recent Mount Agung episode, Airbnb public policy (South-East Asia) head Mich Goh says the company monitors the situation daily to determine additional response steps.
“We have provided more than 12,000 hosts and guests in the area with latest information from local government authorities, as well as safety and preparedness tips,” she says.
In a separate statement, Airbnb says its partners and guests are encouraged to be vigilant at all times.
“To achieve this, we partner with local government agencies and relief organisations, like emergency management agencies, to provide safety and preparedness tips to our community.
“This occurs via messages to hosts and guests where we provide the most up to date information from the local government authorities leading the response to a disaster,” the company says.
Additionally, guests and hosts in disaster-struck areas will have access to Airbnb’s 24/7 customer support during an emergency.
Airports and airlines provide vital passage
In times of trouble, airports are an important hub for travellers seeking passage out and incoming aid. There are detailed airport emergency plans (AEP) to deal with the aftermath of an emergency or disaster.
In a previous statement, Malaysia Airport Holdings Berhad (MAHB) says full-scale simulation exercises are regularly scheduled at all airports under its management. This is to ensure readiness in the event of threats, accidents and natural disasters.
Airlines also play a role. In an e-mail response, AirAsia says it adheres strictly to civil aviation regulations and best industry practices in responding to emergency situations.
There are systems in place to provide early alert of potential issues, with constant updates on recovery options.
The airline adds that its main priority is to assist passengers by moving them to the next available flight to their original destination.
“In the case of a natural disaster or mass emergency situation which is uncontrollable, we will mitigate or influence these situation as much as possible – that is cancel or move flights,” AirAsia offers.
It’s also vital that passengers update their emergency contact info and nationality during the booking process.
Firefly public relations assistant manager Saisundary Sundra Kumar says knowing what your airline’s policy is in regards to natural disasters is helpful.
In the event of an emergency, airlines are bound by the airport authorities’ plan.
“Airline staff are given training on emergency response and followed by a refresher course every two years,” she explains. Travellers should also try to keep tabs on personal belongings, passport and money.
“Always be prepared and bring backup copies of your passport and travel documents. Contact your embassy to see what they are doing to get their citizens out of the country,” Saisundary advises.
Brace yourself and insure your travels
One of the ways travellers can cover themselves against travel risks is to insure their travels.
AIG Malaysia affinity marketing head Alice Teo says the rise in global natural disasters illustrates the importance of travel insurance.
“Travel insurance is extremely affordable when weighed against the costs of an accident and the ensuing medical costs which can be exorbitant,” she says.
Teo adds that travellers should ensure they have travel insurance that provides the right coverage for their trips and whether the coverage is sufficient as medical cost in some countries and locations are high.
Generally, a good travel insurance covers the following: Medical emergency; travel delay; loss of money or documents; baggage delay, damage or loss; and home away protection.
“Different service providers will have different levels of coverage and product features. Someone who travels frequently may benefit from having an annual travel insurance cover, while a group trip with 20 people may opt for multi-cover. Those who participate in vigorous or sporting activities may need extra cover as a standard travel insurance may not cover these activities,” Teo explains.
It’s also important to save the global assistance or helpline number of your travel insurance service provider and the policy number in your phone.
“The moment you need help to get assistance and advice on your next steps of action, call said number immediately,” Teo says, adding that assistance depends on the nature of the incident, location and severity.
“Assistance would be varied; among them could be provision of medical and food supply, arranging accommodation in a safe location or alternative travel arrangements,” she offers.
However, Matta’s Tan says travellers need to understand that insurance comes with fine print.
“Contrary to popular belief, insurance does not offer protection, only compensation to the insured that complied with terms and conditions,” he says.
The best remedy, according to Tan, is to be prepared for any possibilities during your holiday.
“No place on Earth is totally safe, but risks are greater during travel due to unfamiliarity of surroundings. In all cases, the hazards must be identified, and risks established to be better prepared.
“Be alert at all times in order to be safe,” he concludes.